Part 2: Better Place Israel Experience Center: I Just Drove (One Version Of) Our Future


by @autobusiness

Driving up to the cylindrical two-story Experience Center north of Tel Aviv, bordering a lifeless ocean of unsold French cars, we parked our Mazda5 next to a pair of electronic Renault Fluence ZEs. At a normal car dealership, we would’ve waltzed in unannounced only to be molested by a pimply salesman with an ill-fitting suit. Since this was the “Experience Center”, however, the Better Place website encouraged us to book a tour in advance despite not having any clue as to what such a tour might entail.

We were penciled in for 3:00pm that Friday but Israel’s road network had other ideas. We got so dazzlingly lost trying to find the damned place that we started to wonder if the Byzantines called really complex crap “Judean”. As such, we were a solid 45 minutes late. As we tardily strode into the airy building, we were found the reception desk, explained the situation, and were promptly signed up for a private tour at 4:00pm. With a few minutes to kill, we acquainted ourselves with the spotty (but delicious) cappuccino machine. Before we knew it, we had individualized name tags and the fun was set to begin!

The female tour guide didn’t waste any time (what Israeli does?) and led us directly to an otherwise concealed 3-row theatre with seating for maybe 50 people. To our right was a 100 foot screen and to our left were a bunch of beige leather seats from older cars. (I landed in a 2001 Mazda 626, in case you’re curious). The 20-minute movie was jazzy, clean, and highlighted by holographic projections of rockstar founder Shai Agassi.

Overall, it wasn’t the most upbeat film. Better Place was portrayed as the only solution to the world’s problems, naturally, but the problems presented were made to seem pessimistically daunting rather than as the reality that has brought joy, long life, and prosperity to untold billions of humans. As the presentation ended, our guide opened the side curtain doors and invited us to follow her outside to our awaiting electric future.

My fiancée and I followed the guide to one car while my brother and parents followed her colleague to another right behind it. We were each given a quick explanation of the secure charging points that Better Place will install (for free) in every home and throughout the country at public places. The charging points overcome theft concerns by locking the cord into both car and charging point, releasing its electric grip only to swipes of the owner’s key fob. It all seemed very well thought through.

After this interactive demo, it was time to get fizzy with it behind the wheel. I was tossed the keys first, and a moment later I was comfortably adjusted in the generous cloth chair. I queitly twisted the key, flipped ‘er into D, and gently released the brake. As I eased the whispering family sedan towards the high-speed straightaway, I was fondly reminded of the Lincoln MKZ Hybrid I drove last summer. I’d missed the silent breakaway that only an electric car can provide. More than I realized.

Trying to act confident and natural, the way any died-in-the-wool car reviewer would when steering something totally alien, I put my weight into the throttle. An instant response from the electric motor yanked us forward and up around the first corner before the first of two parallel half-mile straights. My false confidence was encouraged by the tour guide in the passenger seat.

“Go fahstairrr!” she goaded.

My fiancée in the backseat, so often averse to my wildly masculine driving style, wasn’t about to argue with a typically brusque Israeli any more than I was. So fahstairrr I went! Whoooosh! It was a calm 100kph before I backed off for the ninety-degree left-hander at the end of the straight, letting the regenerative braking soak up the accumulated energy just momentarily before I shuffled the majority of it to more immediate heat loss. I’d barely noticed that we were driving the future until I turned the Renault-badged wheel into the even-radius corner. Like creaky bones, the ZE’s steering ached its way into the corner with an even burst of staccatos. The steering felt as sticky as baklava in the roasting Dead Sea sun. Strange.

Unwinding the wheel with a wheeze-groan-pop, we coasted to the roundabout, pulled a 360, and turned the Fluence ZE back towards home base on a parallel route. Ignoring the steering this time and instead focusing on the acceleration along The Straightaway Redux, I admired the lack of shifting from the unigear transmission. The even-keeled progression back up to 100kph was nothing spectacular, but remarkable for the same reason. It was familiar but coolly jet-like. In other words, it was everything it needed to be.

Returning to the front entrance of the Experience Center, I swapped seats with my fiancée. In short, she loved it! The instant torque… the smooth ride… the whole package. As a driver of a Mazda3, Israel’s most popular car for the last 7 years, her approval boded well Better Place’s chances at converting the nation to battery power.

The rest of the family seemed similarly impressed and immediately fired the “How much does it cost?” and “When can I get one in Edmonton?” questions my way. “$40k in Israel” and “When Shai says so” was about as specific as I could be. As we walked back into the showroom together, we jointly analyzed the Better Place proposition. After debating population density, practicality, reliability, cost, the overall experience, and geopolitical stability, we concluded that each of us would have one tomorrow.

The showroom itself felt alive with the frenzied energy of a start-up. But the craziest, most unexpected, and downright pleasant aspect of The Experience Center was the utter absence of predatory salespeople. The showroom vehicles sat there with doors open, waiting to be explored in peace. Any questions that weren’t answered in the introductory movie, during the test drive, or by fiddling with showroom models could be conveniently found on an array of customized white iPads. The harassment and pressure that so frequently characterizes the typical Canadian dealership (and so many other sales environments, including Old Jerusalem’s markets) was nowhere to be found. This unorthodox approach is no less ground-breaking than the Switch Stations that grab the front page headlines.

If that weren’t enough, there’s the (Caution: Hebrew video) Oscar telematics system too. Oscar is an integral part of the user experience because he/it tells you where the Switch Stations are on your route. Fancy as that idea is, it needs to be seamless or it’ll never be adopted by real-life owners. By this point, it should come as no surprise that Oscar is more intuitive than anything else on the market. It’s also bloody fast. Like iOS fast (or the the opposite of MFT 2.0). It’s where BMW’s iDrive “4.X”, set to be released in the 2013 7-series, hopes to be next year and it’s available in a Better Place Renault right now. It’s a keen reminder of founder Shai Agassi’s accomplished software background and yet another ship-sinking hole plugged.

It’s the completeness of Better Place that’s truly marvelous. From the provocative marketing and intuitive dealership experience to the shrewd Renault tie-in and trump card Switch Stations, the company’s thoroughness makes Fisker and Tesla look like Segway and Th!nk. Better Place represents the brightest future for battery-powered cars but it’s still only one potential future reality, albeit a convincing and desirable one. Gas-powered cars are always developing new tricks to increase efficiency, exploration companies are always finding more oil, and the fuel cell wild card is still waiting in the wings, waiting for just one battery-powered slip-up.

Like Israel’s remarkable plant life that we talked about in Part 1 of this series, Better Place is the product of Samsonian effort and Josephian vision. But the two are similar in an even more important aspect: they both still have a long road to travel.

[Photo credits: author]